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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Opera Review: March to the Scaffold

Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites at Caramoor. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sisters: the cast of Dialogues of the Carmelites with Hei-Kyung Hong at the right.
Photo by Gabe Palacio © 2015 Caramoor Festival.
The Bel Canto at Caramoor series specializes in the opera of the early 19th century. But this Saturday, music director Will Crutchfield thrust this annual summer opera festival squarely into the 20th century with the first Caramoor performance of François Poulenc's powerful 1957 opera Dialogues of the Carmelites. This semi-staged performance, directed by Victoria Crutchfield featured a strong cast of veteran singers mixed with raw but very promising talent.

Dialogues' fame rests on the historical truth of its story, the power of its score and the requirement of sixteen female singers to portray the Martyrs of Compìegne. In 1794, these nuns were arrested,tried and guillotined in one of the bloodiest acts of the French Revolution. At this performance, four major opera talents took the Carmelite vows, led by soprano Jennifer Check as Blanche, the heroine whose decision to join the cloister and then join her sisters in their march to the scaffold forms the core of the opera's plot. Her best friend is Constance (soprano Alisa Jordheim) a fellow novice who shares none of Blanche's night terrors and is cheerfully convinced that one day, they will die together.

A spoiled child of the aristocracy, Blanche enters the Carmelite order but panics when the Sisters take their vow of martyrdom. In truth, she is the one fictional character in this story but her presence provides the opera's dramatic arc and moral center. Ms. Check is a familiar figure at the Met, usually heard in supporting parts. In this leading role, she was able to open the full range of her powerhouse soprano, capturing Blanche's fear and perpetual inner turmoil over the course of three acts.   Clad in simple black with the white wimple of a novice, Ms. Check sang with fire and fierce power, an angelic figure in the darkness and gloom of this production.

The first act of Carmelites is dominated by the Old Prioress, performed here by Wagnerian veteran Deborah Polaski, the woman who holds the record for singing Brunnhilde in the Ring. Confined to her wheelchair, Ms. Polaski gave a harrowing performance, using the formidable size of her voice and its distinctive spread vibrato to paint the portrait of a soul in crisis. This was nail-chewing stuff, as she captured the horror of the old woman's situation and her spiritual, almost evangelical effect on her fellow nuns.

Following the death of the Old Prioress, the opera's momentum shifted to the coming storm of the Revolution and the test faced by the suddenly threatened nuns. Two more opera veterans, Jennifer Larmore (as Mother Marie, the sub-prioress) and Hei-Kyung Hong (as Madame Lidoine the new Prioress) used their versatile, flexible instruments with great power and authority, steering the suddenly uncertain convent through these bloody waters. standing up to invading revolutionaries, investiture and seizure and ultimately, arrest.

Evicted from their home by the Revolutionary Tribunal, the nuns vowed to become martyrs if arrested. Blanche attempts to evade her fate by voting "no" but is foiled in this by  Constance. She claims to have been the one who voted against martyrdom but recants, dooming Blanche. This is too much for Blanche and she flees her fate. The nuns are arrested, leading to Ms. Hong's barn-storming Act III aria where she tries to provide courage to the nuns. Blanche encounters Mother Marie, the only nun who would eventually survive to tell this terrible story. The second act also featured two strong tenor performances: Noah Baetge as Blanche's brother the Chevalier de la Force and Scott Brunscheen as the Chaplain

The final scene of this opera is a coup de théâtre, the chilling spectacle of fifteen women singing the "Salve Regina" to the ascending thirds that form the backbone of Poulenc's score. The rising figure is interrupted as each woman exits stage left, followed by the chilling SHUNK-slice!--the sound of the guillotine blade. Finally, Constance was the only one left, joined in her final singing of the chorus by Blanche, who is now resolved to choose the martyr's death over the misery of old age and cowardice. Ms. Check was most radiant in this final liebestod, her voice ascending gloriously until the blade came down. The rest was silence.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.